Tax credits and jobs — that’s what Asheville hopes to get by having most of the city designated a State Development Zone.
Asheville Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan asked for City Council’s permission on Dec. 1 to apply for the designation, which would take affect Jan. 1, 1999, if granted. The program would mean thousands of dollars in tax-credits for each new job created by qualifying businesses within the SDZ, which would include most of Asheville and a large portion of Buncombe County southwest of the city, including the airport, Caplan explained.
An SDZ is a census-tract area with more than 20 percent of its population living at or below the poverty level, Caplan informed Council. Eligible businesses include manufacturers, warehouses and wholesalers, data-processing services, air-courier services and central administrative offices, Caplan said. The tax credits for such businesses include:
• a total of $4,500 in income-tax credit for each job created by qualifying businesses with more than five employees (except for central administrative offices, which must create at least new 40 jobs to qualify);
• a 7 percent tax credit for investments in machinery and equipment;
• a 7 percent tax credit toward the cost of establishing a central administrative office; and
• and up to $1,000 in tax credits for new-employee training.
Studying Caplan’s report, Council member Barbara Field noted that the jobs created must pay at least 110 percent of the average Buncombe County job — currently $493 per week, or $12.32 per hour.
The news pleased Council members, who, in the past year, have repeatedly mentioned the need to bring what they term “head-of-household jobs” to Asheville. The North Carolina Economic Opportunity Act of 1998, according to Caplan’s report, recognizes that areas of economic disadvantage exist within otherwise prosperous counties such as Buncombe. Coupled with the city’s own economic-incentives program, Vice Mayor Ed Hay observed, “This is a double-dip for businesses here.”
Council members informally OK’d the request for the designation, and then waived their regular work-session rules to vote — unanimously — to set a public hearing for Dec. 15 on the proposal.
Into the political fire
Should City Manager Jim Westbrook speak at a political-issues forum sponsored by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce?
Asheville Council members gave their approval on Dec. 1 — with a slight hesitation. Said Council member Barbara Field, with a smile, “Are you going to train people to run against us?”
Chamber representative Angie Chandler said no. The forum, she explained, is geared toward educating Chamber members on the workings of government — from local city/county boards and commissions to the state General Assembly.
Council member Chuck Cloninger said it’s a good idea for the city to participate in the forum.
But Council member Earl Cobb shook his head when asked to comment on Westbrook’s invitation from the Chamber to give participants a nuts-and-bolts presentation about city government. (Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene has also been invited, as have state officials, communications experts, educators and members of local boards and commissions). “I won’t say anything, because I might say too much,” said Cobb, shifting in his seat as he considered whether to continue. But Cobb couldn’t resist pointing out the forum’s apparent purpose: to recruit Chamber members to run against Council members who are up for re-election next year. (Under Council’s new staggered-term arrangement, three Council members’ terms are up at the end of next year; they include Cobb, O.T. Tomes and Tommy Sellers). Cobb said he couldn’t give his approval for Westbrook to go — or deny it, either.
Chandler responded, “This is not directed at the city or any particular government.” The forum has been planned for some time, she added, since long before the current recall petition for all Council members.began to be circulated.
“But you can understand, because of the particular timing [and with] Council [being] under the threat of a recall — there might be a feeling among some of us that there might be a hidden purpose,” suggested Mayor Leni Sitnick.
Chandler said she understood their concern, but reiterated that the forum plans were made during the Chamber’s annual strategic-planning session this past summer; she added that other chambers around the country conduct similar forums for their members.
Sitnick nodded and remarked that sending Westbrook would at least give the city some input at the forum. She told Westbrook, “It would seem that you have the approval of Council.”
Bele Chere money
For the third year in a row, Asheville’s biggest festival made money — almost $60,000, according to Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson.
But City Council member Earl Cobb asked how much it cost the city to provide cleanup, police and other staff support for Bele Chere ’98. “I’d like an accounting of [those] costs,” he requested. “We need to know.”
About $200,000 total, Brinson replied: $22,303 for police, $39,430 for Public Works clean-up crews, $10,000 for on-duty firefighters, $5,781 for accounting staff, $128,858 for Parks and Rec staff, and $750 for Building Safety and electrical inspectors.
“We do make money off the festival,” he insisted, stressing that the overall economic impact on the city is $23 million.
According to a survey of more than 600 people who attended Bele Chere this past summer, the average out-of-town visitor spends more than $200 each day; local attendees spend almost $100, Brinson reported.
Council members Chuck Cloninger and Barbara Field backed up Brinson’s argument that the festival makes money, pointing out that most of the staff time involved is overtime pay. “Those people would be getting paid anyway,” said Field.
There was no further comment on the money-making aspect of Bele Chere. Brinson reported on several improvements to last year’s festival, such as adding the Taste of Asheville food court (which gave local restaurateurs an opportunity to peddle their best alongside the purveyors of more normal festival fare), and increasing the number of events for children and teens.
But another touchy topic lies in store for Brinson and Council members: What to do about alcohol sales at future festivals. In the past few years, Council member Tommy Sellers and Mayor Leni Sitnick have advocated the decrease and eventual elimination of city-administered alcohol booths at the festival. Doing away with all street-side alcohol sales is a possibility the Bele Chere Board and city staff are considering, Brinson mentioned. But, he added, 76 percent of the survey respondents this year supported alcohol sales.
Council members will take up that brewing issue at a later time, probably early next year. They took no action on Brinson’s update.